Mary Mary, Not Quite Contrary!

A few months ago, in August 2007, Mary Meeker, Morgan Stanley’s famous internet analyst published a bullish report on Google.

Google had just announced that its video web site, YouTube, would soon begin displaying video ads. In her report, Mary initially projected that YouTube’s video ads would result in incremental revenues of $720 million next year. But, while doing the number crunching for her report, Mary made a serious mistake. She took the price of the ads as “$20 CPM” to mean price per ad impression, and not per thousand ad impressions, which is what “CPM” means. In other words, she overstated projected revenues by a factor of 1,000. The actual projected incremental revenues, based on Mary’s corrected model were only $720,000, an insignificant number when compared with Google’s total revenues.

What’s interesting for us, however, is to observe what happened next. When Henry Blodget, another famous internet stock analyst, pointed out Mary’s mistake, on a public forum, she acknowledged her error.

However, instead of revising her overoptimistic conclusions, Mary left them intact! She rationalized them by revising yet another assumption in her model which resulted in much higher projected revenues for Google than would have been the case, had she not made this second revision, In her report update, Mary wrote: “In fixing the error, we also took the opportunity to dig deeper into our assumptions and…. we provide an updated scenario analysis of the opportunity.”

Mary Meeker’s response was not quite contrary to what most of us do, when we are presented with evidence which proves that our previous conclusions may be wrong. When we face such situations, our first reaction, almost always, is to discredit the new piece of evidence which proves us wrong. If we can’t do that, for example when the evidence is solid, we tend to invent other, new reasons, which would keep our prior conclusions intact.

Consider how a chain smoker, who smokes two packs of cigarettes a day behaves when he is first informed by his doctor that smoking causes lung cancer.

His first reaction is that of extreme discomfort arising out of two inconsistent pieces of information – that he smokes and that he was just informed by his doctor that smoking causes lung cancer. The chain-smoker, could, of course, eliminate the feeling of discomfort by quitting smoking immediately, but we know that is not going to be easy at all. Even the great Mark Twain, tried to give up smoking, and after having failed, once remarked, “Its not difficult to quit smoking, I’ve done it hundreds of times!”

One option before our chain smoking friend is to first discredit the medical evidence linking smoking and lung cancer. He could do that by questioning the validity of the medical research behind that finding, or, perhaps, by citing a silly the fact that he once knew a chain-smoking man who lived to a hundred years. Or, he will find other reasons for convincing himself that smoking isn’t really harmful, or that it helps him relax, prevents him from gaining weight etc.

The above example shows that we are capable of going to extremes in order to fool ourselves into believing that we’re right about things about which we are really wrong.

Contrary to the belief of most economic theorists, we’re really not rational animals. Rather, we are rationalizing ones. There are obvious lessons here for the readers.

Take the idea behind what is called as the “sunk-cost fallacy.” We’re obsessed with what it cost us to buy an investment. The cost of our investment is not just a financial commitment made by us – its also an emotional decision about ourselves. We like to think we were right. If the price of a stock moves up after we buy it, we take it as evidence of our intelligence and investing skills.

However, if it falls well below our cost, we tend to overlook negative developments about the company which we learn about subsequent to our purchase – or we tend to under-weigh such information, for example, by deluding ourselves into believing that the adversity our company is facing is only of a short term nature, and that its only a matter of time when our stock will soar.

We consciously ignore other alternative investment opportunities that become available to us, because we don’t want to buy them from cash realized from the sale of a dud investment. We fear that if we sell, we will suffer a loss, not realizing that the loss happened the day we made the wrong decision. We forget a fundamentally sound economic principle that, with a few exceptions, sunk costs i.e. what it cost us to buy a stock, are irrelevant in the sell decision.

Here’s an experiment I would recommend to all of you. Take a look at your portfolio without considering what it cost you to buy those investments. All you have is the name of each stock, the number of shares you own, the current stock price of each investment, and its current market value. Total up the last column to estimate the liquidation value of your portfolio. Notice, you’ve no idea about the cost of the individual investment, or of the entire portfolio.
Now, as objectively as you possibly can, ask yourself this question: “If I did not own all these stocks, but instead had the cash equal to their current market value, then would I buy them today?” Ask this question about every stock that is present in your portfolio. Sometimes the answer will be overwhelmingly “yes”. But when the answer is overwhelmingly “no”, you’ve to ask yourself as to why is the stock in your portfolio in the first place!

The reason why this experiment is useful is because it forces you to forget about the cost. It also forces you to start from a clean slate. When you start from a clean slate, your old past decisions will often appear to be silly, especially when they are compared with other, better alternatives. When you leave the baggage of past decisions behind, and start from a clean slate, you tend to become more rational.

The “sunk cost fallacy” is often reinforced by what is called as the “endowment effect” which shows that once you own something, you value it higher than before you owned it even though there is no rational reason for it.

Somehow, in our minds, our ownership of something wrongly increases its value. For example, just after placing bets, bettors at the racetrack become much more confident about their horse’s chance of winning the race. And lottery ticket buyers tend to buy more frequently if they are allowed to choose their own lottery tickets than when they are not. They also value their lottery tickets more highly if they personally chose them.

In a fascinating experiment, two groups of people were sold lottery tickets with identical chance of winning. Members of one group were allowed to choose their own tickets, while members of the other group were given randomly selected tickets. Immediately after the sale of tickets, but well before the results of the lottery were to be announced, members of both groups were individually asked to quote a price at which they would be willing to sell their tickets. The average quoted price for first group – those who were allowed to select their own tickets – was four times the average quoted price of the second group! Clearly, the act of buying the lottery tickets, when combined with the act of choosing the tickets themselves, magically increased their value to the first group.

There are vast practical implications of these simple experiments for you, dear reader. For you’re going to make mistakes. It’s inevitable that you will make mistakes in your buying decisions. You will face tremendous pressures that will tempt you rationalize your mistakes and not correct them. Your will tend to protect the status quo by inventing new reasons to hold on to a dud investment. This will be especially true when your original buying decision is known to many other people who are important to you. For it will hurt you to acknowledge to them, and to yourself, that you made a mistake, and it will be difficult for you to correct it because, ironically, you will attach more importance to saving face by appearing to be consistent with your past commitments, than trying to become a rational investor.

Contrary to what we may choose to believe, the functional equivalent of Mary Meeker is there in all of us.

The above piece was published in Outlook Profit, a new fortnightly magazine published by the Outlook group. Reproduced with permission.